William Dean Howells's 1891 novel of interracial marriage, An Imperative Duty, has recently received increasing critical attention because of its saturation with the language of contemporary scientific racism and its complex and apparently inconsistent approach to questions of race and identity. The novel's other major conceptual concern with questions of moral duty, clearly announced in its title, has generally been neglected in this discussion. This essay examines the crucial interplay between questions of race and ethics, arguing that Howells's novel undertakes an ethical critique of late-nineteenth-century scientific racism from a specifically Pragmatist philosophical perspective. Reasoning according to Pragmatist principles, and pursuing an inherently Pragmatist narrative form, the novel implicitly asks its readers to understand the ““facts”” of race in terms of their intersections with personal and social morality rather than in strict accord with the essentialist claims of ascendant nineteenth-century race theory. In its refusal of ontological absolutism and its embrace of an ethically pluralist and instrumentalist approach to questions of race, Howells's novel offers a Pragmatist challenge to the interlocking absolutisms of traditional ethics and contemporary scientific racism.
- 2008 by The Regents of the University of California